Lily sat by the sea and clutched her hands tightly to her chest. It was
not enough for the peaceful water to extend, endless into the blue
horizon: she had to feel it with all her soul, to stretch out and enfold
that grand space until she had become what her heart admired.
The sun, as it often does, burned too brightly. She couldn’t stay for
very long before its harshness challenged her admiration — though for a
moment, exactly because it was a challenge, her spirit girded up, her
fine senses multiplied, and in that moment she became more than she was.
Her awareness of beauty, of grandeur, glowed in the hot tribulation
provoked by a sun warring with her more delicate nature.
At last, as always must be, she was forced to yield and to seek a place
beneath the shady cypresses. Yet the chilling Pacific winds are enough
to evaporate whatever remaining warmth lies in one. After only a moment
it becomes too cool, and one must return to the effusive sun again.
Lily turned her palms upward and counted invisibly the years of her
life. She was twenty-six and unmarried. Her mother was worried at the
fact, but her father remained unconcerned. Lily herself often thought
of how she didn’t have someone, but the actual fact of being unmarried
was unimportant. To her mother, it was a question of having a loose end
to take care of; that is, of her daughter’s progressing from a lesser
state to a greater one; while for Lily the emphasis lay on him, and the
lonesome fact that he was taking his sweet time in finding her.
Whether she blamed him for the delay or herself would have fueled quite
an argument. Always the men she met were too shallow, too idiotic, or
too stereotypical. She herself was unchanging — relatively speaking –
so that certainly the fault must lie with them. And whomever, from all
that plethora of manhood in the world she was destined to marry, had so
far kept himself absent from the interviews. So it must be him that was
To Lily’s mother, it was her. She was too picky, too meddlesome, too
unreachable. Every time he would come to dinner, she would depart,
leaving only her body behind to carry on a conventional dialog with the
stranger. And since Lily’s looks were not about to win her a place at
stardom, surely some attention must be paid to the guest, or else how
could he possibly be interested?
Thus the mother dwelled on the marriage, and the daughter on the man.
At the moment neither was present, indicating that they were both
dealing in fantasies. If only her mother could see how wrong they were,
and if only she would realize that time was running out! The
availability of single, desirable men was dwindling with each year,
revealing more and more acutely why those who were still single are.
Agghh! Let us brush away these thoughts, Lily said to herself. They
destroy the view.
And, in being frank with herself, she continued: I am like those fish,
submersed in the unchanging monotony of their life. And even if I dare
the chance to leap out to catch a glimpse of sun, I am only bound to
fall back into the same old ways again. Then it must be that he is a
friend who will make the waters warm for me, tell me tales of the sun,
and encourage us to jump together, and often. It will still be the same
life and the same boredom — as far as the facts of living go — but it
will at least have been ameliorated to something quite pleasant, almost
like the flying of those birds I envy for their romps in heaven. This
will become my access to the joys my heart has longed for, and the
raptures my soul has pined for, but never gained.
She sighed in all the luxury of self — pity as she considered the many
oceans of time that lay between her and her future beloved. Given all
the possibilities of life, he must be out there, only it required
exhausting them one by one, bowing before chance and fortune, praying
that perhaps fate might assume a more controlling role.
Her fill of despair suddenly became too tiresome, and she stood up to
admire the raw simplicity of the land. The ancient rocks seemed as
though yesterday had been a thousand years ago. The blanket of sea
spread between her and them rolled and thrashed. Small fish couldn’t
help but be caught up in the rigorous froth. Atop one rock was a lone
cypress: calm within calm: a photograph amidst a fantastic image, yet it
was actually there. The contrast between its thoughtful repose, and the
thoughtless violence of the sea, trapped Lily between the essential
forces of two opposing worlds. On the one hand, the established order
of marriage and all that it implied, and on the other, the pure fantasy
of exclusive passion: a love to burn all life’s trivialities to ash, and
sweep them aside in a breathless glance. Such a feeling is, in a manner
like the sea, heedless of all future and consequence. Let come tomorrow
And then there were the rocks, in their impasse of bearing, forbidding
any fluidity within the established rules of life. Reckless passion
cannot but fail; forethought, unregarded, cannot but lead one into utter
ruin. Why were social laws and mores brought into being but to protect
one from the reckless excesses of youth? And though all the waters
turned and boiled, yet the essential grayness of the rocks remained
Lily felt this about her mother’s ideas of marriage. Such a final thing
left to mere decision making! “Is there enough money to support you?”
“Will he raise the children well?” “Is so-and-so connected to good
influences?” Never mind the tender heart that must endure the constant
comings and goings of the same face and the same attitudes. To Lily’s
mind, if the hearts were not in every way connected, none of these
external considerations mattered at all. A poorly built ship, despite
the best of weather, cannot float.
Yet then there was time. It was moving fast. Already two decades of
single living seen and gone. Could either mother or daughter endure
The sun had turned another quarter through the sky. Four hours of
considering when the change would come. But who knew? Better to meet
as many people as possible, as soon as possible, than to sit here on a
dune and contemplate the impossible!
Lily drew her hands up to her cheeks. They were dry and exceedingly
hot. The sun had made her knees pink, and her eyelids warm. It was
very much past the time when she should move on.
Downtown Carmel has a charm which survives all the rampant outrages of
materiality. Thus, for every irreverent factory meant to pass money
from the hands of the tourists into that of some far-away company, there
were at least two more that expressed the genuine spirit of the town:
people seeking to bring art to public attention, restaurants
specializing in old family recipes, bookstores carrying books that most
people hadn’t heard of. All of this thriving spirit surfaced through
the morass of bright colors and expensive clothing that could be
witnessed everywhere else.
Amidst this struggle walked Lily. Her head was down, contemplating the
stone pebbles that lay on the sidewalk. To the left she could hear a
violinist playing for bills, and to the right, cars of every model and
color, arrayed in regular parade order — moving slowly, so as not to
miss the beauty of the town. In this way Lily became both observer and
observed. The tourists and the locals in the cars admired her bent
head, and her soft, straight hair that played carelessly in the wind.
She in turn regarded them in the corners of her eyes, observing their
sleek, smooth blackness, and the occasional red streak of a Ferrari.
The cars acted almost as a kind of transportation mechanism, carrying
luxuriant overtones of wealth and prosperity from one end of the town to
the other. It was all nothing more than cars, people and shops, but
somehow it felt like so much more, as if unnumbered possibilities were
waiting just below the surface for only the right person to bring them
into the light.
Such was the buoyant health of the town, bubbling and effervescent, that
it swept its visitors from end to front and back again. Lily welcomed
the insistent good cheer as a respite from her own brooding, and allowed
herself to be carried along on its currents.
At one point, the energies flow together in front of a small
coffee-shop, at the base of a T-intersection. In one direction the road
heads back to Route 1, the old Pacific Highway, connecting the southern
part of Monterey Bay with its northern counterpart, Santa Cruz.
(Whatever might be lacking in the way of adventuresome spirit in Carmel,
by the way, was certain to be found in Santa Cruz, but that is a
different story altogether…). In the other direction the road curves
around to the coast, and heads back down into Big Sur and Pacific
Heights. That way lies beauty…
Lily ordered a cappuccino and sat to watch the crowds pass. How many
people! A seething mass of color and cloth, and provocative bits of
flesh showing here and there — a veritable feast for the viewing. Yet
which among them was he? The tall, lonesome stranger stooping down to
rescue a flower from a tangle of leaves? Too tragic. The stylish
gentleman, hands in his pockets, moving steadily along to his next
engagement? Too predictable. Or maybe the one across the street, dark
hair and green eyes, stealing a glance every now and then whenever she
turned away? Maybe just too shy.
Lily cataloged and processed every possible and impossible, probable and
all-too-daring encounter. Where no hope existed, she registered it
calmly and firmly, accepting this as the fate of life. But then there
was he with the deep-set eyes, jewels in a face unknown… He was
walking now down his side of the street, and turning to cross at the
light. Now he was crossing. Now he was moving slowly towards her
All of these things she reflected on afterwards. As usual, such events
arrived in the memory at a terrifying blur, and only after long days are
they clarified and separated. It is almost like a pasteurizing of
memory, a converting of the pure milk of experience into something more
agreeable to the palate. So it was with the mystery stranger who never
reappeared. In that moment of unreasoning hope she had leapt across the
distance of space that separated them, and seen far into his mystery
eyes that seemed to signal to her from some dark and mysterious place.
But as he crossed to the other side, and became momentarily obscured by
a corner of the building (her vantage point was recessed in a courtyard,
inset within a much larger building), the moment turned into minutes,
and then many, and then many, many more. She had intended to spend the
rest of the afternoon immersed in thought, but now she was oppressed by
the obdurate length of that interminable moment. If only what we call a
“moment” were to coincide with the briefest divisions of time, nothing
painful would ever last for very long. But a true moment is independent
of duration, albeit time plays a necessary role.
However, lest it be imagined that the unknown stranger really meant so
much, consider instead that he represented, in that one exaggerated
moment, every undiscovered lover who might have been. He thus took on
the mythical stature of the same nameless figure who had shared with her
her dream-filled afternoons. And so he had an image now, even if
arbitrary: he was aloof, regardless of the world’s trivial details, and
set apart from our society of madness and lack of feeling. Where had he
gone to, this one whose name I may never know? Lily waited out the
moment until the sun, ripening into a dusky vermilion, prodded her home
with its magic stare.
Imagine those heavy feet that dragged: those of a human being who had
realized the ugly fate of having to long for another human being. It
was not enough to be single, alone and free. The machinations of Fate
work ever to keep us from peace.
Lily did not weep, although it was in her heart to do so. Somehow it
seemed that the god upon whom our pity calls was not with her that
evening, and hence no reason to invoke him. Thus she remained quiet and
stunned — pained to the quick by the realization that what she had been
longing for so dearly in her life had just passed, corporeally, before
her very own eyes.
Lily ended the day in her bedroom, looking out over a row of palm trees
that brushed the sky. Like the stars above, her hope grew with the
evening, until the whole of her thoughts was illuminated with the
brightness of future days.
The moths outside Lily’s window, too, were rapt in devotion. Their
object, however, was simply the light of an electric bulb, buzzing at
sub-audible levels in the otherwise quiet stillness of the evening. God
had created them to direct their flight towards the very herald of the
night, the moon himself, but now, due to the contrivances of men, this
passionate moth found himself having arrived at a place very distant
from his goal.
And he will never leave, for he has become entranced in this electric,
dazing glare, longing only to immolate himself in a final act of
incontestable fidelity. Such noble desires wasted on a simple,
eighty-watt bulb! His God-given impulses had become directed towards a
petty thing, yet he himself was content to remain there. How strange.
Our own unquenchable thirst for completion is perhaps an indication that
although we seek our beloved in this world, perhaps the true “other” is
found elsewhere. That we have been created with a deep-seated longing
is undeniable — even the most thoughtless and empty-hearted among us
seek something to occupy their days. The proof is that we all are
athirst: implying a remedy, and that we all are in search of: implying a
Lily’s heart carried on the meditation, though her mind was occupied
with more trivial things (who she’d seen in town, the graduate school
she wanted to go to, the paintings she wanted to buy…). But as the
night came she permitted herself to relax into the thoughts that come
most easily: those lead us into sleep. Now and then the images played
together and turned, until they unified at last into an
indistinguishable blaze of color — and finally blackness.
Asleep, perhaps our souls, like Lily’s, carry on this great question of
why we live and what we live for. Perhaps we feel the effort in our
muscles when we wake, or the lingering of the question — but we shrug
it off and begin the day anyway. Yet does it all start and end so
easily? Do days and nights simply alternate like footsteps, heading us
constantly toward some inevitable, final moment? Aren’t we bound to ask
ourselves whether the goals we’ve set to achieve are really worth our
while, and whether they can actually fulfill us at all?
Perhaps one human being can fulfill another. I have yet to see. The
stimulating pain of not having someone, or something, to fill the space
is real enough. Perhaps this signifies that the intended beloved is
real enough as well.
And then the sun comes. Lily wakes and another day begins. Maybe he is
a green-eyed stranger — that one to fill her soul — or an unseen
deity, never to be seen or comprehended. Let the tormented ask that
question; let them waste their time in idle thought. After all, it’s
the part of the living to live, rather than debate what living is all